The state of nature: British environmental policy beyond COP26
November 14th, 2021- By Katie Jones
Amidst big promises from Boris Johnson and other government figures on the environment in the aftermath of COP26, Katie Jones examines the government’s own environmental policies to see if they’re up to scratch.
Boris Johnson opened the COP26 summit in Glasgow last year with the stark warning that we are “one minute to midnight” and like James Bond “strapped to a doomsday bomb”. He then took a private plane back to London for a dinner with climate sceptics. Johnson talks a big game when it comes to the UK leading the way for the rest of the world on climate policy, but just how accurate is the picture he wants to paint?
Back in October, a few weeks before COP26, the government was forced into a U-turn over whether or not to allow water companies to pump waste sewage into our rivers and seas. The amendment first brought in the House of Lords by the Duke of Wellington would place a legal duty on water companies to reduce their sewage discharge. After being initially voted down by the majority the Tory MPs, the inevitable push-back was immense from both opposition and Conservative voters. Raw sewage was discharged into British waters more than 400,00 times in 2020, which is damaging to people as well as local wildlife. The government has now conceded and water companies will have a duty to reduce sewage discharge, but this does nothing to aid their environmental record on the whole.
It was clear from the government’s actions that climate action is not their main priority
Another recent point of contention was Rishi Sunak’s recent budget, where the climate crisis played second fiddle to issues such as the cost of alcohol. The stand-out climate related policy was not one to quiet the warning bells as Sunak announced a cut on domestic flight passenger duties, which is projected by the Liberal Democrats to produce 91 million kg of CO2 from the additional flights taken. It is also counter to the Climate Change Committee’s recommendation that there should be no UK airport capacity expansion. The CCC chair told Sky News “the government is hung up on trying to prove that leaving the European Union was a good idea”. The focus on the short-term goal of proving so-called ‘remoaners’ wrong is summed up by Greta Thunberg’s response to the budget. She said that it was clear from the governments’ actions that climate action is not their main priority.
It isn’t all bad and there are policy points for which the government should be commended. During the April 2019 Extinction Rebellion occupation of central London, Parliament listened to activists and declared a climate emergency, signalling their commitment to decisive action. They further updated the emissions targets to net-zero by 2050. Carbon budgets were first introduced in 2008 and so far successive governments have met the goals. We are currently on track to outperform the third budget period (which ends in 2022) to reduce emissions by 37 per cent when compared to 1990 levels. Unfortunately, the CCC says the UK is not currently on track to meet the next carbon budget goals. This includes the sixth carbon budget that was announced earlier this year which calls for a 78 per cent reduction in comparison to 1990 levels.
Last year the government announced plans that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars is to end in 2030. This is part of a £1.8 billion investment into zero-emission vehicles which includes grants for electric cars and the installation of public charging points. This cannot come soon enough as there is currently rampant regional inequality in charging points. The announcement was the fourth point in the government’s Ten Point Plan for a Greener Britain which has been described as a “landmark moment” by the CCC. Following the plan’s announcement last year, the CCC’s chief executive Chris Stark said it “will raise the UK’s credibility ahead of the pivotal COP26 climate summit”.
Britain’s climate record is under a microscope
The government is not the only British figurehead facing scrutiny over their commitment to climate action. The royal family has been the target of a campaign spearheaded by Chris Packham asking them to do their part. Last month he led a protest march of school-strikers to the gates of Buckingham Palace where they hand-delivered a petition signed by over 100,000 people which urged the Queen to rewild royal land. The royal family owns 1.4 per cent of UK land, much of which Packham describes as being in “not what I would call good ecological condition”. Land restoration efforts is an area where the government has been recently praised, following their May announcement of £50 million to restore 35,000 thousand hectares of English peatland. Experts are pleased with much of the plan, however note that it still contains significant gaps that will need to be filled by NGOs.
Bringing it back to COP26, more focus has been applied in recent months to an often forgotten about part of the government’s climate record – fossil fuel subsidies. In May this year, the International Energy Agency published a report stating that it is vital there is no further investment in new fossil fuel projects if we are to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming. Despite this, the UK government continues to subsidise the fossil fuel industry through ISA and pension investments and tax breaks for oil and gas giants drilling in the North Sea. MP Nadia Whittome shared her frustration on social media after failing to get any commitment from government representatives at COP26 when asked if they would backtrack on the new Cambo oil field west of Shetland. In addition, MP Zarah Sultana has written to the Parliamentary Contributions Pension Fund urging them to divest MP pensions out of fossil fuels. Her letter, signed by 132 cross-party MPs, cites Britain’s responsibility as host of COP26 to show leadership on this front, saying “the world’s eyes are on us”.
With these eyes upon us, Britain’s climate record is under a microscope. Activists, politicians, and leading scientists agree that if Britain wants to be a global leader on the environment the time for words and promises is over. The government need to put their money where their mouth is with detailed, legally binding plans and take the necessary meaningful action today to protect British wildlife and the planet’s climate.